Outlook of China

By He Qinglian in March, 2013.

Original article in Chinese: 从2013“两会”话题的兴衰看社会脉动

Through observation of the emergence and disappearance of topics in the “Two Sessions” over the years, one could get a glimpse of the hidden political pulsation.

If a given motion is the focus of discussion, it means that the Communist Party of China (CPC) acknowledges a problem is there and that it is serious. If a once hotly deliberated topic vanished all of a sudden, it does not mean that the problem is solved. Instead, the problem became a “general disease” of the ruling clique. It cannot be solved, and they don’t want to solve it. Therefore, the topic disappeared from the “Two Sessions”.

In the “Two Sessions” this year, the hot topic is “environmental pollution”, and the frozen topic is the issue of “naked officials”*. Between the two issues there is in fact a close correlation that is extremely subtle.

Shrouded by “environment panic”, China ceases to be a country of happiness.

China’s environment pollution has long driven the people in some regions into a hopeless situation. Villagers of hundreds of cancer villages across the country are victims of this category. Part of the environmental pollution data, such as the portion of contaminated groundwater across the country has already reached as high as 97%, and the dramatic increase in cancer patients, got disclosed prior to the government transition out of political needs. At a time when a number of cities in China were shrouded in haze and smog, academician Zhong Nanshan told the public that those could lead to cancer, which period of high incidence would come in four or five years.

All of a sudden, the news overshadowed the Chinese people, privileged and poor alike, with fear about the environment because while the privileged could have access to special food and drinking water supply, they have to breathe the same air as the poor. The people look to the rulers to immediately start addressing the environment pollution issue so that they could breathe clean air.

As the “Two Sessions” held amidst the fear about the environment, both the representatives and the media feel worried. Many delegates are beginning to care about the environment and called on the government and corporations to disclose environmental information in a timely manner. Lu Xinhua, spokesperson for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) who claimed that the quality of domestic powdered milk is safe and reliable, feels otherwise about the air. In response to the schedule brought forth by the relevant department that the air quality of major cities would meet national standard by 2030, he said, probably out of the deep concern for his own life, that it is a bit too long to wait for 18 years and expressed hope that the schedule could be shortened.

Possibly out of the memory of “Happy China” being the theme of the “Two Sessions” in 2011, Mr. Zhong Nanshan from “happy Guangdong” lashed out; “irregardless of whatsoever harmonious society you call, or whatsoever platform you have, the most important thing for human is the air they breathe, the food they eat, and the water they drink. None of these is safe, and there is no happiness at all!”

The outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao could only point out: "It is needed to implement practical pollution prevention and control measures to solve the pressing problems of the air, water, and soil contamination that are closely related to the vital interests of the public. It is necessary to improve the environment, safeguard the health of the people, and take concrete actions so that the people see hope.” However, he did not mention how much the environment pollution issue had actually worsened during the years his held office as Premier.

And while there are wishes, it is not easy to take actions. Most of the delegates own car(s). It is understandably difficult if they are requested to stop using their own car(s) and to commute with public transport instead; and it would be even more difficult to make those business owners who profit from pollution emission and their agents in the government quit what they are doing. Take the province of Shanxi for example. Severely polluted, Shanxi would even mine out the ground (over 10% of the ground hollowed) within its province for economic development, and the officials there have always insisted that economic development comes before of environment protection. Faced with the “environment fear” of delegates of the “Two Sessions”, Ms. Shangguan Yongqing, CPPCC member from Shanxi, said calmly that “the weather of smog and haze is a problem difficult to avoid in the process of economic development. To address the pollution problem would require taking every concerning aspect into consideration and implementation in a comprehensive way.”

It is said that many of the flats in Beijing have been purchased by officials from Shanxi.

A frozen topic: "cracking down on naked officials".

The once hotly deliberated topic of “cracking down on naked officials” in the “Two Sessions” in 2011 remained frozen. As happened in 2012, some journalists pressed Ma Wen, head of the Ministry of Supervision (MOS), about the exact figure of “naked officials”. Ma replied that he could not produce such a figure and prevaricated by saying that the issue of “naked officials” is one that involved internal management of cadres, the journalists should go to the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee for the figure.

The pretext does not hold water in that the organization system of the CPC is one that has a long history and powerful functions. Back in the days when the CPC was a “revolution party”, it was already able to thoroughly record who among its members were traitors and who had left the party. Now being the ruling party for over 70 years, would the functions of the CPC actually degrade that it could not produce the statistical data of naked officials after several years of work? Of course not, technically this could be done without any difficulty. Just look back at what happened before and after the topic of naked officials became trending and one could tell what the real crux is.

The attitude with which the CPC government treats “naked officials” has undergone a transformation process. Initially, verbal statements that the issue would be addressed were made; and in the end the Party just switched to a laissez-faire approach. The year 2010 in which the political situation was far better than today was the year that verbal statements of cracking down on naked officials were made. On February 22, 2010, the MOS issued on its website a directive, “The main points of the National Bureau of Corruption Prevention 2010”, which for the first time included “regulation of naked officials” as a focus of corruption prevention. During the “Two Sessions” held in March that year, Ms. Lin Zhe, a representative of the National People's Congress (NPC) and a professor of the Central Party School of the CPC, disclosed publicly to the media that from 1995 to 2005, a total of 1.18 million officials’ spouses and children settled abroad. After the disclosure of this figure, the Chinese Internet was like it exploded.

On May 19, the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the Office of the State Council promulgated and implemented the “Interim Provisions on Strengthening the Management of Civil Servants whose Spouses and Children have settled outside the Country (Territory)”.

Guangdong, Hunan, Shenzhen and other places posed to enact similar provisions. For instance, officials whose spouses and children have settled abroad would no longer be allowed to assume top positions in organizations and so on.

I am convinced that Lin’s statement that there were 1.18 million “naked officials” was not an irresponsible comment; instead, it was made based on internal data. Now it’s been eight years since 2005, and China has experienced an outflow of the rich, the number of “naked officials” should have long exceeded 1.18 million. In early February 2012, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published its Blue Book on the Rule of Law, which contained a sub-report that reported 38.9% of public servants believe it is okay that their spouses and children have foreign nationality. And the higher the ranking the officials are in—that is, the more capable they are of facilitating their spouses and children to settle abroad—the greater the degree of recognition they have for “naked officials”. One of the factors behind this phenomenon is that CPC officials are extremely pessimistic about their future in the country, and among their worries include the concern of the deterioration in environment and ecology.

Environmental panic drives a surge in the number of "naked officials".

The reason that Chinese officials are so eager to become “naked officials” is of course out of the consideration to avoid danger. If in the past it was mainly about political and economic concerns, then in recent years as the ecological environment deteriorates, those officials who want to be “naked officials” have yet another consideration that is closer to the bottom line of survival: the hope that their children could live in a safe ecological environment. A number of emigration study reports mentioned that the rich take this into consideration when they choose to emigrate. It should also be the case for the officials.

Can the Chinese ecosystem that is on the verge of collapse be restored? I knew it is difficult. Officials as insiders would of course be more fully aware of this: the deterioration of China's ecological environment could be attributed to both political and economic reasons, and it is also related to the increasingly tense relations between China's resources and its population. Due to space limitations, this article would discuss only the two causes of politics and economy.

That China's environment is in such a state is a “tragedy of the commons” at its most extreme in human history. The most noticeable characteristics of the CPC regime is that its hegemonic power over social resources is far greater than all dynasties throughout the history of China, and at the same time it assume no accountability in politics. In the case of China's feudal monarchy there was an emperor as the ultimate accountable person. Yet under the totalitarian regime of the CPC, the highest rulers barely need to bear any political consequences for the wrongful deeds they have committed. Take the ecological environment for example. It is claimed that all of China's resources belong to the people, and the CPC government, the “people's representatives”, take charge of the resources management and allocation. Government (officials) of all levels, however, being the actual owners of the public resources, have the right to use them without having to be responsible. As a result, resources are used to depletion and pollution is everywhere. That I call this a “tragedy” is because while every official knows that the resources would be depleted due to excessive use, none of them feel they could do anything to stop the situation from continued worsening. On the contrary, they are of the attitude that they profit from the resources while they could, which exacerbates the deterioration of the situation.

A while ago, a number of netizens urged their local chief of the Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) to swim in the river. Some EPB chiefs considered pollution in local rivers not entirely their responsibility. That was in fact not a remark of prevarication because environmental assessment and supervision of local EPBs are done almost in complete compliance with orders from leaders of local Party branch and government.

Since this giant ship of China could not escape the fate of sinking, officials are all very “wise” and want to grab what they could before the ship submerges; sending wives and family to settle abroad first became a “collective action” of the officialdom. Sensing what the “naked officials” have on their mind in taking the “collective action”, an official of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection surnamed Li commented that “not fight corruption would result in the demise of the Party and the country; to crackdown on corruption, too, would result in the demise of the Party and the country”.

It could be said that the increase and decrease in the importance attached to the issues of the environment and the “naked officials” respectively in the “Two Sessions” this year serve to pinpoint the future of China. The real tragedy of the Chinese people is that, the collapse of ecological environment is a fate that could not be reserved simply with a change in the political system.

*Naked Officials, officials who stay in China while their family settle abroad.